In a recent post on the positive experiences people have had while working as artists’ studio assistants, I speculated that the reason the job may have a bad reputation is because you only hear about the negative ones. Consistency bias is a powerful thing, and the reading public is drawn to stories that confirm its worst prejudices about well-heeled art stars. Young people, in particular, cringe when they hear about famous creatives mistreating their staff, but we also kind of love it. I stand by this argument, even though I also believe that a lot of the really, really bad stories about life as a studio assistant are true.
The Chapman Brothers, artists who started their careers as studio assistants for Gilbert & George
Lisa*, who works as an assistant at a prominent architecture studio in Manhattan told Flavorwire that she has had her fair share of troubles in this pursuit. “I once had a job at a studio where we started each day with the studio manager saying ‘well, at least we still have jobs today,'” she said. “One of the skills that qualified me for this job was my ability to look busy and remain silent should the artist ever visit the studio. That being said, the artist rarely visited without a 20-minute warning demanding that we vacate the premises.”
On other occasions, Lisa’s treatment strained the limits of ethics and legality. “I worked at a studio where the women were paid $5 less per hour then the men,” she said. On another occasion, cruel swings in affection came into play. “I worked at a studio where I was given a promotion,” she recounted, “then fired when I asked for a raise to accompany the expansion of my responsibilities.”
Brenda, a performance artist based in Brooklyn, once worked for a prominent Italian photographer and performance artist who could be very difficult when she was unhappy with her staff’s work. “I pretty much had two years of madness with this woman,” she related. “Once she screamed ‘I am the artist’ when things did not go her way.'”
Derek, an artist based in New York, said that during the 2005 New York City transit strike, fellow assistants in the studio of a “tyrant” artist trudged their way to work by bike and on foot. Thinking they deserved it, Derek decided to buy the group breakfast sandwiches with the company credit card. His employer fired him, and listed “improper use of company funds” to subsequently deny his claim for unemployment.
The issue of theft also came up in the work of Jennifer, who worked in the office of a very prominent French-American painter and sculptor. Jennifer says she was given “zero” chance to defend herself when her employer accused her of stealing an original drawing. About three months later, she was startled to find herself on the receiving end of an apology.
Then there are the more prominent doozies. Following the news of the tragic death of an assistant working for David Hockney in East Yorkshire, the Guardian ran a lighter-hearted piece with accounts from the Chapman Brothers, who were once apprenticed with the collaborative duo Gilbert & George. “We coloured in Gilbert and George’s penises for eight hours a day,” Jake Chapman recounted. “They were very polite and it was interesting to hear them talking – as we did our daily penance.”
* The respondents to this post universally insisted on being anonymous. All names have been changed